The popular image of Fleetwood Mac is of the band as an unstable molecule, its parts best understood by their place in an ever-changing swirl of connections. The group’s long saga includes marriages and divorces and affairs, departures and firings and returns. Bustling with rumbling blues, painterly folk, and hippie pop, its songs are pleasant blurs from afar, and cathedral-ceiling complex up close.
To most people, the singer and keyboardist Christine McVie, who died yesterday at age 79, was the member most recognizable for her role in the whole. She was first a fan (back when she performed under her birth name, Christine Perfect, at the same gigs as Mick Fleetwood’s blues group), and then a pillar (described in multiple obituaries as something like the “eye of the storm” in Fleetwood Mac). She could be thought of as both the band’s first woman (joining in 1970 shortly after marrying its bassist John McVie) and the band’s second woman (having willingly ceded the spotlight to Stevie Nicks, who joined in 1975 and quickly became a superstar). She was a glory-agnostic musician’s musician, content to entertain the public from behind the buffer of an electric piano.
But the grief millions feel at the news of McVie’s death may help reframe her legend: She was a titan in her own right. We all know that voice of hers, a clear and strong river cutting through dry rock. She wrote and sang songs that suspended time and defined eras: the panting “Don’t Stop,” the plaintive “Songbird,” the irrepressible “Everywhere.” Classically informed and practical-minded, she was a crowd-pleasing genius (“I’m a hook queen,” she once said) who used her powers for art.
The exemplary song that first comes to my mind is “You Make Loving Fun,” which McVie wrote and sang on the group’s 1977 album, Rumours. Although it was a smash, the track does not quite have the reputational mystique of knottier, more grandiose cuts such as “The Chain” and “Dreams.” It is, in fact, that most suspicious thing—a capital-p Pop song with a silly name. But in just over three and a half minutes, an epoch’s worth of emotion circulates. McVie gives one of the prettiest renditions ever of one of the most elemental tales: the unhardening of a heart.
The song builds off one of the band’s characteristically magnificent grooves, a boogying pulse ornamented with rock-and-roll detail work. The rhythm conveys tension and grit, which are leavened by the song’s ethereal wind chimes, guitar solos, and harmonies. Really, though, McVie’s vocals are the main event. The opening verse is a seduction, her syllables long and lassolike. Then, in the chorus, something amazing happens: The song seems to surrender. The band slows, like it’s readying for a nap, and McVie ascends, as if picked up by wind, while confessing to never believing in magic. When she flutters down, she’s sighing in bliss, but measuredly, pragmatically, honestly: “I’ve a feeling it’s time to try.”
Perhaps you find most of the lyrics—“Sweet wonderful you / You make me happy with the things you do”—a bit mushy. Of course, giving oneself over to mushiness is the point of the song. “Don’t break the spell,” McVie pleads to a lover and, perhaps, to the unapologetically romantic music itself. When she says, “I don’t have to tell you but you’re the only one,” it sounds like a given—although the tangled, affairs-laden backstory of Rumours suggests other possibilities. After all, the song is about Fleetwood Mac’s lighting director (whom she was dating), but she reportedly told John McVie (whom she’d divorced in 1976) that it was actually written about a dog.
The complex mythology of Fleetwood Mac adds another layer of poignancy to the song: An ode to believing the unbelievable was written and delivered not by the famously mystical Stevie Nicks but by her hardy foil, Christine McVie. (The critic Robert Christgau once asked whether Rumours is good because the “cute-voiced woman writes and sings the tough lyrics and the husky-voiced woman the vulnerable ones.”) But this band, and McVie herself, was a story of multitudes—and the way that mastering those multitudes can create miracles.